Eyes open; sunlight pressing its tired hopeful nose against the horizon. I didn’t know anything except how to feast, meaning I didn’t know anything except how to love.
We met at a three-week-long summer camp in Virginia. For the first three days I didn’t speak a word to her; America was the most foreign kind of homeland, & there were so many others to love, emerge into, explore open-mouthed & humming. The sun rose early here, & my body felt so quiet, so possible, lorded over by light. On the fourth morning I was eating breakfast when she wandered over, asked if she could sit with me. No one else was in the dining hall; she could have chosen any of the dozens of empty tables over mine. I said yes without thinking. Reckless yet still so safe.
She lived on a different continent, smelled of sandalwood & unspoken warmth. I was a poet, she a songwriter. We argued over who loved Bon Iver & e.e. cummings more. I promised myself she was in a relationship, & when she made a throwaway comment about being single I promised myself she was straight. The sun rose early here & everyone’s accents sounded like mine. After she left I walked back to my dorm alone & scrubbed at my skin beneath the shower, named it floral, named it wonderland.
We were so similar it seemed a little ridiculous, or at least a little like fate. Liked the same books, songs. Said the same things at the same time. Every morning for the next three weeks at breakfast she sought me out & sat with me in the dining hall, & I tried not to feel incandescent over this & mostly failed. We picked strawberries & wore each other’s drug store lipstick. I was trying to realise my joy in the middle of summer. It was America before America became an act of brutality, & it was pink-hued & effulgent, & it felt like each day the sun rose earlier, & she had a quiet laugh & dedicated her songs to me. I knew nothing about her & for that I loved her.
This is one of my worst habits, falling in love with the enamelled idea of people instead of the messy reality of them. I want every day to be easy as the start, you know? I want it all to be a sun-drenched revelation, a choir singing together for the first time, before the expectation & the disappointment kick in. I want it all to be life blooming out of lifelessness. Something in me gets drunk on that newness, a rush of adrenaline & hope, the first moment I believe I could actually be someone else’s dream. Something in me kneels at dawn to that shrine & none other.
In America I sat in the audience & listened as she crooned ballads at open mics & tried not to imagine she was singing only to me. We were talking about Sappho & Stevie Nicks. I wanted to give her every song. Is it okay if I make you a playlist is what I said. Is it okay if I fall in love with you is what I meant. Do I even need to tell you how she answered?
We kissed on the last day of camp, 5 AM, radiant in newness, just before the real world set in. I’d never kissed anyone who loved morning the same way I did, who went to sleep early just so she could wake up & see the sunrise. This isn’t the end is what she said just before she left. Imagine a melody as skylined, as sure-nosed as that.
I landed in Singapore after 21 hours on a plane, the sun rising behind me like a song down my back. I took a photo of that wide & peach-soft morning from the airport, texted it to her, captioned it back home, thinking of you. Tried not to be disappointed that she hadn’t reached out earlier, asked how the flight had gone. After two more increasingly worried messages she replied days later, apologised for the silence, said school had just started again & her responses might be a little slow. It was okay, I said. I could wait.
& life happened, as it always does. I went back to school too. Found albums to love that didn’t remind me of her. We stayed in contact but only infrequently, & still each time felt like sunshine on my cheeks. She sent me her outfits of the day & the first chords of new songs she was working on. I sent her my reactions when I read her favourite book. She texted me in all caps when Bon Iver dropped a new album. On days my anxiety soared to a crescendo she recorded herself reading e.e. cummings & I listened to the voice messages over & over. Sometimes she still spoke to me upon first waking up & even despite myself I hated the way every part of me shifted into dawn when that happened, the way I couldn’t help but remember the start.
Picture this: someone asks what do you want, & you say I want the thing everyone wants, & no one in the room knows whether you’re talking about sunlight or song.
When she didn’t respond to three text messages I’d sent over a month, I decided she was clearly bored of me & so I would put her out of my mind. I’d recently come to the conclusion it was time to stop accepting anything less than full reciprocity from the ones I loved—mainly because this concept sounded vaguely grandiose & empowering, not because I actually had any idea what it meant—& here seemed a good enough place to start. Even still I checked up on her social media more often than I wanted to admit. Noted how school was going, scrutinised the caption of a selfie she’d posted with another girl & told myself they were just friends, listened to the single she’d released on Spotify. In the mornings, sunlight swept the room of longing. I would’ve loved to hate her but mostly I just missed her.
I dated other people, tasted that dawnsong over & over, the cascade of newness nestled in my throat. I got sunburnt, skin unwrapped like a night sky peeling into morning. Sometimes I still listened to the playlist I’d made for her—only, I told myself, because it was a good set of songs. Even after we stopped talking I never forgot her favourite poems, I still quoted Stevie Nicks on Twitter because I knew she would see. Looking back, the pattern was so clear. There’s only so many ways sunlight can dapple on a choir.
She texted me out of the blue that autumn to say she was visiting Singapore, & the greatest miracle I could think of was agreeing to meet up. The second greatest, of course, was meeting her eye on the Ferris wheel that overlooked the sea. Staring like coming up for air, drinking in all she’d become. She seemed different than she had over that breathless summer in America, surer of herself, a little taller. Less bleary-eyed despite the time & distance. Seeing her again I could admit to myself that as the months had passed I’d fallen more & more in love with her, a resounding newness, the kind that lingers because there is little contact through which disappointment & resentment can bloom. After we kissed again, at the very top of the wheel over the sea, she asked if I was angry with her for disappearing. No, I said, & the look she gave me felt like the opening chord of every one of my favourite songs. I could forget, just then, the ways she’d let me down. I could let myself believe in the person she was at the beginning.
Ask: what holds her up? What makes her cry? Does she remember the perfume she was wearing on the first day? What makes her feel holy, & is it the same thing she thinks of while standing in a cathedral? Are there more photographs in her camera roll of sunrise or sunset? Does she ever want to call you when a Bon Iver song comes on? Do her hands still shake when she’s onstage? Does she think of you as a footnote or as the one that got away? Does she think of you at all? It matters to you. Maybe it shouldn’t matter but it does. It does.
Years later I went to Europe to forget, which I think is why most people go to Europe. It was February, the saddest time, the one most saturated with parting, & we hadn’t spoken now in months. I listened to her playlist as I went missing somewhere on the train to Rome &, like the fool I was, kept my eyes open anyway. All this happened because it was once again sunrise, & I was in Europe before Europe became an act of penance, & I still monitored all of her playlists on Spotify, listened to every new single she released & swore to myself over & over I wasn’t hoping the lyrics of one would spell out my name.
She walked into the café where I was reading a book & eating breakfast, hungover. Sat down next to me without a word. Oh, my goodness. Is that—& it was. Hello, of course. It’s so good to see you, of course. I can’t believe—you should’ve told me you’d be in town. In the thin morning light she could’ve been a dream. You look tired, she said, & then laughed. Well, more than usual. & before I could talk myself out of it I buried my face in her shoulder, said, you’re just the worst.
I think sometimes about how terrifying, how bright it is to get three beginnings with another person. Less often I think about how even with all those beginnings, there’s a chance it still won’t happen. It just isn’t supposed to be. There are places on the earth the sun never touches, but the deepest, tenderest part of me wants to believe they find other sources of light.
A pause in the conversation. You’re happy, she said in a way that implied you have to be, a way that implied tell me you are, & she took a sip of my coffee, looked down into it like she didn’t care even though I knew suddenly, all at once, that she cared more than anything. I’m happy, I replied, & I found it was true. I can’t remember what song was playing in the café but I hope it was something by Bon Iver.
Then: you know I still think about that summer, I said. We really could’ve been something, couldn’t we.
There are so many ways we choose sunlight over silence. When she replied I think we, when I kissed her before she finished the sentence, I like to imagine I knew how it ended. I like to imagine it wasn’t I think we could’ve been, but I think we always were.
I kissed her for the third time & the first as the sun rose in Rome, & I was loved. I was loved. I kissed her & I meant north, I meant dawn, I meant eyes open. I kissed her & I meant despite everything, I meant because everything. I kissed her & I was loved. I kissed her & I meant my desire familiar yet foreign in my mouth. I kissed her & I meant sunrise, I meant I’d kept the key to the dining hall in America & in that moment I would’ve bet the world it still fit the lock. I kissed her & I meant I was holy. I kissed her maybe a thousand times before. The door opened. The sun’s rays crossed her face. I kissed her & I meant I was thinking about spring. I kissed her & spring meant she was thinking about me. I kissed her & I was loved. I was loved. Her eyes open & warm, like beginning again & for the first time. Bon Iver over the speakers. Her hands not trembling anymore. Isn’t this a kind of horizonline. Isn’t this a kind of humming.
(Silver-Tipped Swallow is a Half Mystic column about the ways in which music intertwines with our experiences in loving, losing, & lingering on what remains. This column, along with two more by the HM team & dozens more pieces of art, music, and writing by contributors, is published in Half Mystic Journal’s Issue VII: Aubade. It is available for preorder now.)